Why learning from the best is not always a good idea.

One can learn a lot about how to swim from watching others.  Many people will study the actions of the top exponents of the sport in an attempt to garner their secrets.  With the proliferation of videos available on the Internet, such videos are readily accessible.  Good quality footage of Olympians and World Champions is just a click away.  It is possible to watch, rewind, pause and study the races and training of those at the very top of their game.  If you’re not taking advantage of this valuable resource you are invariably missing out.

However, it is important to recognise the limitations too.  It is important to remember that these competitors don’t just rock up to events and casually smash records without an immense amount of preparation, focus and sacrifice to their personal lives.  The early morning training sessions, lack of social life, gruelling gym sessions, attention to detail regarding diet and the single-minded goal-oriented concentration of every waking moment are second nature to the elite.  It is unrealistic for us to think we can replicate their performance from the comfort of an armchair without also applying the same level of dedication.  Michael Phelps would swim up to 50 miles a week in training when he was performing at his peak.  Only that sort of dedication can help to bring about the incredible level of success he achieved.

But that, I guess is obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the gulf between the life of a top sportsman and our own.  There are, however, other factors to remember.  Swimming is a “whole body” sport.  Every part of the body is in play and needs to move in a coordinated fashion to achieve the optimum result.  Yet it is relatively rare to be able to find videos that cover every angle of a swimmer from above and, particularly, below, the water.  Coverage of races tend to concentrate on “above the water” views, only venturing below the surface during the end-of-lane turns.  Yet approximately 95% of the swimmers’ body will be underwater and without the complete picture it is not possible to ascertain exactly what is going on.

Photo by Highlight ID on Unsplash

Besides. The method an athlete is using to swim during a race might be different to the one they employ during training.  Some swimmers will adopt different styles for each segment of a race.  This is often most noticeable during the latter stages when a straight over-arm pull is adopted for the final few strokes.  If you only watch part of a race you may assume that what you are seeing is the norm for that swimmer as opposed to a tactical change.  The reason for the alteration in technique is often due to a recognition that it is not possible, or advisable, to swim long periods with a certain method; the straight over-arm technique being a perfect example with its inherent dangers for causing shoulder injury.

And speaking of injuries, remember too that one of the reasons SwimMastery concentrates so much on the adoption of the correct joint mechanics is because many injuries are often regarded as being an occupational hazard by swimmers.  A study in the US (Pink MM, Tibone JE. The painful shoulder in the swimming athlete. Orthop Clin North Am. 2000;31(2):247-61.) showed that a whopping 91% of swimmers aged between 13 and 25 reported at least one episode of shoulder pain. It’s a shocking and, in our view, completely avoidable statistic. 

There is one other factor to consider when watching those able to compete at the highest level.  These are not normal people!  That is not intended in a derogatory way.  It is simply true that the average Olympian, for example, has a far superior physique to most of us mere mortals.  In 2016, the average female athlete at the Olympics was 5 foot 8″ and weighed 10 stone.  Some were much taller.  Kate Ledecky, for example, is 6 foot.  For the males, the average height was 6 foot whilst their weight was 12 and three-quarter stone.  In both groups, the average age was in their early twenties.  However, an athletic build is often just the starting point.  To take Michael Phelps as an example.  It is well known that he has size 17 feet which help enormously with his kick.  He is also double-jointed in elbows, shoulders and ankles giving him enormous flexibility.  He stands at 6 foot 4 inches yet his proportions are not those of an average man of that height.  His torso is the length of a man of 6′ 8″ and is 45 inches across giving him huge strength in the upper body whilst his legs, which can cause drag and slow him down are disproportionately shorter.  

Phelps is perhaps one of the most extreme examples of having a body ideally suited to swimming and this, (coupled of course with his supreme mental focus and dedication to training) have brought him enormous success. However, because many of the top athletes possess such natural and superior attributes it means that they can often get themselves into and, more importantly, out of, swimming positions which would be detrimental to those of us not blessed in this way.

In conclusion then, by all means study the great and the good in the world of swimming.  There is much to be learned from this approach.  However, beware, just because you are seeing something happening at the top level does not automatically mean that you are going to be able to replicate this in your own swimming.  Nor indeed that it would be necessarily wise for you to even attempt to do so.




How Is SwimMastery Different From An ‘Elite Program’?

I was asked recently how we would distinguish SwimMastery from, for example, a program such as ‘X’ led by a famous Olympic swimmer.

My response went something like this…

That’s a good question regarding comparison between SwimMastery and something like Program X. With some familiarity, my colleague noted that ‘Ms. X has her name and her success to draw attention. She has some great ideas and she’s a real people person. Lovely personality. And a great swimmer, of course.’ But while that is appealing on one side and there are no doubt good things to learn from one like her, there is an argument to be made about the difference between the approach elites took to swimming the way they did and an approach that works for ordinary people, particular adult-onset swimmers, many with sub-optimal conditions for which we must have a great deal more caution and consideration.

Some elites end up making great coaches (and Ms. X seems to be one of them). Though not dismissive of their practices, we have reason to think critically about the technique and the training methodology used and promoted by former elites because the injury rate is horribly high among swimmers in this realm (as reported in various swim organization stats and medical journals) and this rate appears to be institutionally accepted by as normal, just part of the sport. We do not accept those rates, and they certainly represent and inappropriate level of risk for the ordinary people we work with. The values/priorities of elites are substantially different than citizen swimmers and in the commercialized adult coaching realm there is confusion between these realms and the values and needs of the people in them.

No doubt, some elites-turned-coach can learn the context and more appropriate approaches to performance for ordinary people, but those of us who have worked through that pathway personally understand it intimately. Just as elites know what its like to take their relatively robust teenage body and put it through the grueling process to become an elite, we know what it is like to take an aged or ordinary body and put it through a careful process to perform better than ever within its boundaries. Many of our coaches come from the world of ordinary people learning to do (relatively) extraordinary things, while elite swimmers have grown up in a different world. For us a chief value is safety for the swimmer’s body and mind and their longevity in the activity – so all technique ideas must be screened through that chief value. This means several traditional/conventional swimming ideas are rejected because they are clearly connected to injury despite their alleged contribution to elite performance. Not all that makes you faster will also keep your body safe. Therefore modeling one’s swimming after an elite needs to be approached with great caution. Before getting excited and making one’s body vulnerable, we would want to take a lot more justification for the technique and training ideas of the program than just the name of the former elite swimmer leading it.

In SwimMastery, we understand that every detail of the stroke movement pattern matters. Every position, every motion, every restraint of motion has a purpose and we justify it to you in terms of physics and physiology. Consider how many other sports, martial and movement arts maintain exacting standards in their movement patterns, tolerating no deviation for safety and efficacy sake. With respect to the statistical range of variety in human body shapes and dimensions, for each stroke style there is an optimal corridor to fit motion within; staying within that corridor lowers risk while deviating increases it. We will always be guiding the swimmer into that corridor because it is the proper foundation for anyone who wants to swim for a lifetime.


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